SAN FRANCISCO – Not to spoil the surprise, but Casey Fien generally knows how each at-bat is going to end after he throws the first pitch.
“If I get strike one, I feel like I’ve got you. If that pitch is a strike, it’s my at-bat. I’m taking it away from you,” Fien said Friday, more than two weeks since giving up his last hit. “I’ve got the leverage now, and I feel like my cutter’s better than it’s ever been. Yeah, I’m real confident right now.”
With good reason. Fien was a breakthrough find for the Twins last year, striking out 73 batters in 62 innings, mostly in a setup role. But he has been even better this year, dropping his ERA to 1.89, albeit in an unusual way: He has stopped trying to strike batters out. He entered Friday night whiffing 6.2 hitters per nine innings so far in 2014, a significant drop from last year’s 10.6. And the drop is intentional, he said.
“My motto this year is: On or out in three,” Fien said. “Three pitches. I’m attacking the strike zone, and I want to get either a strikeout or make you put the ball in play in the first three pitches. If I’m going to get 70 appearances, I don’t want to throw 17 pitches an inning. I want to be in the 9-10 range. And I’ve been focusing on that.”
Quibble with the strategy if you like, but Fien has made it work extraordinarily well so far. Batters who swing at the first pitch were 1-for-19 this year. In 19 innings spread over 20 appearances, Fien had given up only 12 hits all season — two doubles and 10 singles. He surrendered three runs in the 35-degree weather of Cleveland on April 4 — and only one run since. That’s an ERA of 0.55 in his past 17 outings.
And he is at his best when the pressure is greatest. Opposing hitters are batting .103 with runners on base, .143 with runners in scoring position, and .148 in “high-leverage” situations, where one swing can change the game’s outcome.
“He’s gotten an opportunity here and he’s taken it and ran,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, who moved Fien into the eighth-inning role after Jared Burton started slowly this year. “He’s always been intense, and now he came up with a pitch that’s got him over the hump. It’s a [career] progression you hope a lot of people take.”
The cutter is the pitch, and Fien says one of his favorite parts of being on the mound is setting up lefthanded batters for it. His velocity in the mid-90s has always been enough to retire righthanders, but the cutter, with it’s late break from right to left, has been especially deadly against lefties.
“Especially if I’m throwing fastballs on the corner for strikes, I can just throw that cutter and make it look like it’s out” of the strike zone, Fien said. “Then it comes back right over the corner. That’s fun, a lot of fun. My command of it has been really good.”
But he knows that things can turn south; last year, he had an 0.87 ERA in June, an 0.75 ERA in July and a 9.64 ERA in August. That’s why he’s sacrificing strikeouts this year, in hopes of staying strong as the summer goes on.
“That [slump] was from getting all those strikeouts and throwing 17, 18, 19 pitches an inning,” Fien said. “Now I’m not wasting bullets trying to strike people out. I just want the out, as quick as I can get it.”